The Superversive in Tabletop RPGs: Using The Medium to Your Advantage

It is no secret that tabletop RPGs, by their nature as a medium, grant far more power to the users at the table than other gaming media. If you seek to play Superversive games using tabletop RPGs as your medium of choice, then it is necessary and proper to employ this fundamental feature of that medium to make this happen.

The first thing you do is talk to your players. Before you talk rules, before you talk setting, before everything else, you talk to your crew to see what they’re willing and able to agree upon. If they won’t find a thing fun, they’ll walk. If enough walk, you have no game. People will not work for their entertainment. That’s your limiting factor.

Once you’re all on the same page, then it’s time for the details. Some of this will come up in discussion, or will be known from previous discussions, so this isn’t as daunting a thing as it seems.

  • Rules: You want a ruleset that everyone at the table knows well enough to not have to think about it during play. You want that degree of familiarity so that you can keep play moving fast. Your time is precious, and if you are not resentful of time-wasters, you’re doing it wrong. Looking up rules at the table wastes time better spent playing, so avoid that. Also, avoid people who treat the rules as a machine and their PCs as robots; send the mech pilots to the BattleTech tables.
  • Setting: Whatever you agree to, commit to it. No half-measures. Your quality of play depends upon the investment–especially emotional investment–you put into it. Fun had directly correlates to commitment made.
  • Rulings: Be prepared to issue them early, often, and repeatedly to cover circumstances that your rules do not- and do not let anyone undermine your authority as the Game Master to do so. (So, never play with Raven McCracken.) This does require that you cultivate a familiarity with your ruleset and setting that gives you the comfort to do so easily, so don’t skimp on doing so away from the table. Time spent in preparation pays off on execution.

So, how does the medium allow you to do so easily? Simple: the tabletop RPG medium puts all of the tools normally reserved for game designers or developers into your hands. You’d think this was obvious, but it’s not. We’ve had decades of demonstrations by untold numbers of people through letters to publishers, magazines such as Dragon, and online message boards (starting with dial-up BBSes in the ’80s and ’90s) that this is far from obvious. It’s foreign to the thinking of many in tabletop RPGs. They are used to be followers and not shot-callers. We see that reflected in what succeeds commercially in RPGs in all media where they exist.

What this means is that you should not think of any tabletop RPG as a finished product, especially when it’s explicitly sold to you as such. Instead, it’s like buying a kit that you have to assemble into the finished thing you want, such as buying a kit car and assembling it in your garage into a working hot-rod. You will need to put in some work to get the results you want during play. Do not shirk this duty.

This unfinished quality is where the liminal space exists in the medium, and it is this space that creates the great advantage I speak of: you are in the position to take something boring and make it awesome, and all you need to do is employ the tools at your disposal to create and adjust rules, setting, or both as required to achieve the results that you want. Embrace that power and you too can consistently enjoy one of the most fantastic hobbies to ever come from the brilliant brain of Mankind.

  • Scholar-at-Arms

    The qualities which make a role-playing game different from ordinary forms of fiction or entertainment also affect the way in which it becomes superversive: as it is an essentially cooperative enterprise, it is necessary for all participants to be active in, or at least acquiescent to, making it so.

    • Bradford C. Walker

      Correct. That’s why you talk with the players first. If they aren’t buying, you’re not selling.